Visible Women

This pioneering black woman journalist is finally getting the recognition she deserves

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Moya Crockett
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A statue of Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first black woman to be an official White House correspondent, is being erected in Washington DC. 

Alice Allison Dunnigan, who died in 1983, was a journalistic trailblazer. Born to working-class parents in rural Kentucky in 1906, she went on to become the first African-American woman correspondent to officially report from the White House.

Over the course of her long career, she had to fight against brutal racism, institutional sexism and poverty – but she never wavered in her commitment to covering stories about civil rights and race issues.

Now, Dunnigan is set to be honoured with a bronze statue at the Newseum, a museum in Washington DC that promotes free expression and the First Amendment to the US Constitution (which protects rights including freedom of speech and the freedom of the press).

“Alice was such a barrier breaker for women and people of colour, we were happy to have the opportunity to embrace her here at the museum,” Carrie Christoffersen, curator and vice president of exhibits at the Newseum, told The New York Times.

The statue will be on view at the Newseum until mid-December, when it will be moved to the West Kentucky African-American Heritage Center in Dunnigan’s hometown of Russellville, Kentucky. The child of a sharecropper father and laundrywoman mother, she began walking four miles a day to school from the age of four. 

Dunnigan’s childhood wasn’t a happy one: she wrote in her biography that her mother told her she wasn’t attractive enough to find a husband, while her father told her it was a waste for girls to go to school. But she dreamed of being a journalist from a young age, and started writing for a local black newspaper at the age of just 13.

However, there weren’t many career options open to African-American women in the rural American South in the Twenties – and there were only a handful of prominent black female journalists across the whole of the US. So after graduating high school at the top of her class, Dunnigan became a teacher. The job paid terribly, and she spent much of her 20s and early 30s in grinding poverty.

Dunnigan continued to contribute articles to local African-American newspapers throughout her 18 years as a teacher. But when World War Two broke out, she finally got her chance to escape Kentucky. The government needed more people to join the civil service in Washington DC, and so Dunnigan packed her things and moved across the country to work as a typist for the War Labour Board.

In 1946, she once more began writing part-time, this time for the national black news service the Associated Negro Press (ANP), which provided black newspapers across the country with stories not reported by the mainstream media.

Later that year, she was offered the post of Washington correspondent for the ANP, on a salary of $100 a month. (The job had already been offered to two men for at least twice as much, both of whom turned it down.) In 1947, she became the first African-American woman to receive White House press accreditation. 

Dunnigan had to face significant sexism from the African-American men she worked with, as well as racism from white politicians and reporters. Her boss at ANP, Claude A Barnett, told her that he wasn’t “confident that a girl could do the type of job we needed in Washington”, and was scornful of her attempts to get accreditation from the White House (until, that is, that she got it).

She also once made national headlines when a white police officer tried to force her out of the press area at an event at which President Harry S Truman was appearing, because he did not believe that she could be a journalist. Throughout her career, she was often mistaken for the wife of a visiting dignitary at formal White House functions.

“Race and sex were twin strikes against me from the beginning,” she wrote in her 1974 biography A Black Woman’s Experience. “I don’t know which of these barriers were the hardest to break down.” She eventually concluded that “sex was more difficult”, because she had to “fight against discrimination” from other African-Americans as well as convincing “members of the other race of my capacity”.

But despite these challenges, Dunnigan persisted – and achieved a remarkable string of firsts. As well as becoming the first official black woman White House correspondent, she was the first black woman to officially report on Congress, the US State Department and the Supreme Court. She was also among the first African-Americans and the first women to travel with a US president.

The new sculpture of Dunnigan is being created by Kentucky artist Amanda Matthews. “I think we should have more diverse heroes,” she said. “And Alice Dunnigan should be one of them.”

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Main image: Getty Images